The maddening thing about clichés is that, if we’re being honest, they’re basically the foundation for everyday life. What is more frustrating than to recognize that you, your thoughts, your dreams, your biggest obstacles, are nothing more than a big heap of been-there-done-that? Everyone has felt this at some point (and most of us probably have the feeling daily), the utter futility of trying to feel original. That’s the beauty of The Skeleton Twins. The movie doesn’t avoid the clichés, either in plot points or indie film tropes. It just lets them exist, finding itself, what makes it special, inside the mundanity. Just as we all are forced to do, every day.
Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) are twins who as kids were each other’s greatest ally and best friend. After drifting apart, they still clearly unknowingly share some brain parts. When we meet them, the characters are on opposite sides of the country, 10 years since their last conversation, both on the brink of suicide. The only thing that stops Maggie from downing a handful of mystery pills in New York is a call from a California hospital, telling her Milo has been admitted after his own attempt. Suicide, by the way, seems to be a major theme in their family; their father killed himself when the two were teenagers.
When Maggie visits Milo in the hospital in California, she ends up bringing him back to their suburban New York hometown, where she still lives. An attempted actor-turned-waiter recovering from a break-up, the only thing he has to leave behind are his pet fish. And so we get to know these characters only as they are together, as they revert to that adult version of their childhood selves that we all slip into when we’re around our families. And in this light, never fully seeing who they were separate from each other, it’s still obvious that their lives apart have had an emptiness. Maggie has gathered all the trappings of an adult life: a nice house, a normal job, a super sweet and completely incompatible husband. In another version of this movie, that husband would be a total jerk, probably a horrible philanderer, giving Maggie something concrete to rebel against. Instead, we get Luke Wilson, a super jock who 100% does not GET her, but is the nicest, healthiest and most unabashedly loving person in the whole movie. So all Maggie can fight against is herself, which she does quietly and violently. Milo, on the other hand, never tried for that version of adulthood, finding his own brand of self-destruction. Immediately upon returning home, he throws himself back into a relationship from high school with a much older man, eager and willing to be exploited and used in the same ways we gather he was as a teenager, in exchange for some closeness, maybe love.
In reality, this entire movie comes down to the relationship between Wiig and Hader. They have such an ease between them, their bond (as both actors and their characters) holds the entire thing together, and it feels less like two two great performances than it does one truly spectacular one. We feel lucky to be witnessing this relationship. In the hands of just about anyone else, the movie could easily be a series of flat clichés— personal growth montages, sudden musical numbers, bonding through drug use. I mean, we DO get those things, but with these two, led by the subtleties of Craig Johnson (along with co-writer Mark Heyman), they are not just fun, they are real. That scene from the trailer where Hader tries to smooth over an argument through enthusiastic lip syncing? Yes, it’s just as cheesy and abrupt in the movie itself, but it does not matter. In that moment, it is exactly what we want.
Because sometimes our lives are just a series of clichés, and it’s exhausting and depressing, and we want more. Maggie and Milo both want more. And they, like us, have no idea how what that “more” looks like or to get it. So their story may not have a clear arc. The conflicts may be muddy and the resolutions unresolved. But like the old cliché tells us, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, right? This movie is a journey, made of hilariousness and feelings and perfection.
Vivian Kane may have fixated too long on what happened to Milo’s fish.